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COVID-related issues dominate Ashland selectmen's meeting


September 24, 2020
ASHLAND — The Covid-19 pandemic dominated the Ashland selectmen's virtual meeting on Sept. 21, as the use of the Quality Inn for quarantined Plymouth State University students, the use of the ballfield during the After School program, and the celebration of Halloween were discussed. The selectmen also met with the Trustees of Trust Funds to discuss the trust funds under their control.

The use of the Quality Inn on West Street to house quarantined students from Plymouth State University has aroused some concern in the community. Marlin Collingwood, the PSU administrator in charge of that program, explained the school's response to the pandemic and the use of the Ashland hotel. Currently, about 4,000 students attend in-person classes on the PSU campus, while 500 to 600 students attend remotely. PSU has an aggressive testing policy for students, staff and faculty, with everyone being tested about every week. The university has seen a very low Covid infection rate.

Since the school opened in August, there have been only 17 positive tests. The week before the meeting, 3,800 tests were given with no positive results. There have been cases of students coming into close contact with someone who had Covid-19 or students developing symptoms that could be Covid-19. Those students who might have the disease are tested immediately but it takes time for the test results to come back. Students who test positive or who might have contracted the disease are given two options, to go home (which 70 percent of them choose) or to go into quarantine. That is when the Ashland hotel comes into play. The Quality Inn was rented by the university for the first semester so that quarantined students could be removed from contact with other students and staff, rather than staying in a dormitory or an apartment, where they might infect others. Those who have tested positive are placed in isolation and confined to their rooms. The others, who might have the disease and are waiting for their test results, typically spend 24 to 48 hours waiting to hear if they are sick with the disease or not.

It was the behavior of some waiting students that concerned community members, as they were reported going to the nearby Burger King and Irving, and even playing basketball at the town playground. Collingwood decided at the selectmen's meeting to ban all such offsite activity, and to restrict the quarantined students to the hotel grounds, a move that was appreciated by the Town Manager and selectmen. Collingwood explained that at the time of the

selectmen's meeting, the hotel housed nine students, two positive students isolated in their rooms and seven students in quarantine awaiting test results. The facility is manned by PSU staff 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Meals are delivered to the students in the hotel. Colingwood also spoke of forthcoming developments that should further reduce the risk to Ashland residents, the transfer of the positive testing students to a facility nearer the campus and the arrival of rapid testing machines that can give results in 15 minutes so that fewer students will spend time in quarantine.

At their September 14 meeting, the selectmen agreed that only the children in the After School program could use the Town ballfield during the program's hours, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. The only exception to that rule would be sanctioned activities, such as school soccer practices and games. This apparently led to protests from residents whose children were not in the program and others who could not use the ballfield in the afternoon after school. Selectman Kathleen DeWolfe spoke in favor of opening the ballfield to everyone again, so that all children could use it. Parks & Recreation Director Ann Barney proposed as a compromise to only allow Ashland residents to use the facility during those hours, as was done with the Town beach this summer. It was pointed out that entrance to the Beach was limited to one gate, and that keeping non-residents out would be a full time job, as people entering the park would have to be approached and questioned on their residency. Barney said that she would be willing

to take on that task to protect the kids. Barney was asked which part of the field she was most concerned about, and she responded that it was the basketball court which attracted teenagers and others who could be non-residents. In the end, the selectmen voted 4 to 1, with DeWolfe dissenting, to limit the use of the basketball court and playground sections of the ballfield to the After School program participants from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The tennis courts and the fields west of the playground and basketball court will now be open to the public during those times. At Town Manager Charlie Smith's request, the selectmen clarified their vote to say that the restriction only applied to the days the school and the After School program were in session. Barney wil order signs to be displayed at the park.

Police Chief Will Ulwick asked the selectmen about trick and treating on Halloween. He reported that the Ashland school safety committee had discussed at length the school's Halloween parade through downtown Ashland and after considering various options, decided to recommend to the school board that the parade be cancelled

this year. He noted that other communities are canceling their official Halloween activities, raising the concern that if Ashland advertised official trick or treating hours while other communities did not, children from other towns might come to Ashland in large numbers. With some reluctance, the selectmen decided that the Town should not encourage trick or treating by setting official hours. The police chief and others pointed out that the lack of official

recognition does not prohibit children from going door to door asking for treats or residents from giving them treats. But, that activity will not have the official sanction of the Town.

The Trustees of the Trust Funds met with the Selectmen to discuss a particular request and also the general handling of donated trust funds. The request involved two trust funds for the care of graves in Green Grove Cemetery, the Crimmings & Berry trust fund and the Green Grove Cemetery Fund, which together cover about seven graves. Town Trustee Amanda Loud explained that the funds had not been used in years. The graves that she could locate are all in good condition. The Town Trustees felt that since Green Grove Cemetery is a private cemetery association, the trust funds should be turned over to the cemetery association. They requested permission from the Selectmen to ask the Town Attorney for legal advice on transferring the funds to the Cemetery. The Town Manager suggested contacting the State Attorney General's Office, which oversees trust funds. It developed during the

discussion that the Town Trustees had tried to contact the Green Grove Cemetery trustees about this idea, but did not know all their names and had not yet received any reply. It was therefore unclear whether the cemetery association would accept the trust funds. The selectmen asked that the TownTrustees discuss the concept with the Green Grove Cemetery trustees first and get back to them later.

Town Trustee David Toth did a power point presentation on the trust funds that were established by gifts, including those for cemetery plots, scholarships, the Scribner Memorial Building, library books and Memorial Park. The purpose was to recommend criteria for accepting and administering such gift funds, increase transparency in

their management, establish better communication between the selectmen and Town Trustees, and create checks and balances. Past problems identified by the Trustees included withdrawals that exceeded the trusts' income and depleted the principal, and trust funds that have not been used for many years. In response, the Trustees have revised the investment policy, limited the use of funds to preserve the principal, and developed a plan for reinvestment to lower fees and meet investment goals. Their recommendations include ensuring that the purposes of new gift funds are clearly stated, evaluating the impacts of gifts on the taxpayers and town departments,

keeping good digital records of investments and withdrawals, dissolving trusts that no longer serve their purpose, combining small trust funds for better returns on their investment, and encouraging donors to make gifts to already existing funds rather than creating more small funds. The Trustees promised to make quarterly reports on

the invested funds to the Town Manager and the Selectmen.

Following a non-public session, the Selectmen decided to not renegotiate a new power purchase agreement with the New Hampton Village Precinct. The Precinct had previously terminated their agreement with the Ashland Electric Department.

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